MOSCOW — A Moscow judge on Monday handed down a second conviction for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the controversial former oil tycoon who is regarded as a political prisoner by his supporters, but who was recently slammed on TV by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a "thief."
The fresh guilty verdict is being widely read as a dismal signal for hopes of political liberalization in Russia. Few doubt that Khodorkovsky, a well-connected businessman who conjured vast wealth from the ruins of the Soviet economy in the freewheeling 1990s, is probably guilty of wrongdoing. But even Kremlin supporters admit that he was probably singled out for prosecution because, unlike most other wealthy Russian "oligarchs," he remained politically defiant toward the Kremlin after Putin came to power a decade ago.
The Obama administration questioned the verdict in a statement.
"We are troubled by the allegations of serious due process violations, and what appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends," Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "The Russian government cannot nurture a modern economy without also developing an independent judiciary."
"Of course, everyone believes that this is a political case, but nobody believes that Khodorkovsky is clean," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst and a deputy in the Russian parliament.
"When Khodorkovsky was first arrested seven years ago, the vast majority of Russians agreed that it was necessary to firmly separate economic power from politics. Khodorkovsky refused to give up his political ambitions, and maybe that's why he found himself in trouble with the law. But the law is not wrong about his guilt."
Khodorkovsky, and his co-defendant Platon Lebedev, have already spent seven years in a Siberian labor camp for fraud and tax evasion, and now face at least six more years on the current charges that they embezzled $27 billion from the Yukos oil company they once headed.
Scores of supporters demonstrated outside the Khamovniki Court on Monday — 12 were arrested by truncheon-wielding police — as the judge began reading aloud his decision to a closed courtroom. Khodorkovsky's wife, Inna, was ejected from the room by court officers early in the proceeding, allegedly for "talking."
The "reading of the verdict" typically takes a week or more in Russia, but the outcome is usually obvious in the first few minutes.
"The court has established that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have appropriated property using their staff positions," Judge Victor Danilkin told the court. "Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and (other) members of their criminal group used the embezzled money according to their own will, mostly for their own enrichment."
Khodorkovsky's supporters have consistently denied all charges against him, and point to what they call multiple irregularities in both trials to underscore their claim that his prosecution has been little more than a legal fig leaf to cover the Kremlin's urgent desire to eliminate a political challenger
"We weren't expecting a positive verdict, because it was in no way a fair trial," says Karina Moskalenko, one of Khodorkovsky's defense attorneys. "It's clear we can do nothing for Khodorkovsky in a Russian court room. This gives me a deep feeling of hopelessness."
A three-year-old US embassy cable released this week by WikiLeaks observed with what appears to be uncanny foresight that as long as Putin holds on to power, Khodorkovsky will remain in prison — even though he was due to be released after his first term ended in 2011.
In his annual TV interface with the Russian public last week, Putin lashed out at Khodorkovsky, comparing him to Bernard Madoff, the crooked American financier who was given a 150-year sentence in the US for running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of investors.
"Russia looks much more liberal by comparison," Putin said. "Nevertheless, we should presume that Khodorkovsky's crimes have been proven. . . . I believe that thief should sit in jail."
President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to criticize Putin in an interview with state TV a few days later, in which he said: "Neither the president nor any other state official has the right to comment on this particular case before the verdict is passed."
Many observers took that as a sign that Medvedev - who will soon face a backroom showdown with Putin over who will be the establishment candidate in presidential elections now just over a year away - might be about to buck Putin's will and offer some mercy for Khodorkovsky.
"Many people in my circle think that the conflict between Putin and Medvedev has broken into the public sphere," says Markov. "But this verdict shows that it's still Putin who decides."
Khodorkovsky last month accepted his likely fate in an impassioned final appeal to the court. In an open letter published last week in the independent Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, he took aim at Putin personally, describing him as a "pitiable" figure who displays a public "love of dogs which... has become a substitute for a love of people."
Public opinion polls suggest that the majority of Russians don't care what happens to Khodorkovsky, but in a November poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, 42 percent of those who were paying attention said they believe that the Kremlin is pulling the strings, against 24 percent who thought the court's judgement would be independent.
"In the past, the fact that Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man was enough to condemn him in the eyes of most Russians. But the atmosphere has changed," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Putin seems nervous, and perhaps that explains his harsh words. The Khodorkovsky case is at the core of this regime; there's no way they can let him out without threatening the entire structure.
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